Creation of human-animal hybrid embryo triggers debate in UK

.- The creation of the United Kingdom’s first human-animal hybrid embryo may increase pressure for tougher regulation of the research, Bloomberg News reports.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales said it was “extraordinary” that the experiment was licensed before a full debate about regulating the techniques had taken place.

Researcher Lyle Armstrong and colleagues at Newcastle University made the embryos using human cells and a cow egg.   DNA from a human skin cell was inserted into a cow egg whose nucleus and genetic material had been removed.

Some scientists claim that embryonic stem cells have large potential for medical treatment because of their ability to turn into any of the cell types found in the human body.  However, zero treatments or therapies have emerged from embryonic stem cell related research. On the other hand, research using adult stem cells has led to over 70 different therapies and treatments.

Researchers want to make hybrid embryos using the DNA of people with incurable conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.  Stem cells from the embryos, they believe, would help them study such afflictions and develop treatments.

“We've got 3 million patients in the U.K. who could potentially benefit from the treatments that could be delivered by this research,” said Nick Meade, a policy officer for the Genetic Interest Group.

Human eggs are in short supply, and egg donation procedures pose health risks and cause discomfort for women.

John Burn, head of the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University, said in a statement that the new hybrids “will open the door to a better understanding of disease processes without having to use precious human eggs.” 

“Cells grown using animal eggs cannot be used to treat patients on safety grounds but they will help bring nearer the day when new stem cell therapies are available,” he continued.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales addressed the news in a statement on Wednesday, saying, “It does seem extraordinary that the HFEA should have granted a license before there has been a full public and parliamentary debate.''

“There must be a thorough public discussion about the serious ethical issues raised by the possibility of creating human-animal hybrid embryos,” the statement said.  The bishops’ conference argued that embryonic stem cells have not yet produced any cures, saying that medical research should focus on adult stem cells.

David Alton, a Catholic layman and a member of the House of Lords, agreed, saying, “Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it's wholly unnecessary to use human embryos.”

Catholic teaching opposes all research destructive of human embryos.

Catholic leaders in London, Liverpool, and Birmingham joined Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh in attacking the research in their Easter sermons.  At Easter Masses, Catholics were given postcards protesting the proposals to send to their parliamentary representatives. 

Cardinal O’Brien has criticized the techniques used in hybrid embryo research, saying that creating such embryos constituted “experiments of Frankenstein proportion.”  Subsequently, Cardinal O’Brien agreed to a Catholic lawmaker’s request that he meet with the researchers who want to use human embryos.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has also called for the situation to be addressed by establishing a national bioethics panel.

After much pressure, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has allowed members of his Labour Party a “free vote” on an upcoming parliamentary bill regulating human embryo research.  The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill has a provision that would allow researchers to generate stem cells from hybrid embryos.

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